The History of the Lottery


In a lottery, paying participants buy tickets and choose numbers in the hope that they will win a prize. Some prizes are cash; others take the form of goods, services, or property. The concept dates back centuries; Moses was instructed to hold a lottery to divide land and the Romans gave away slaves by lot. Modern state lotteries are a popular way for governments to raise money for public projects. They are often promoted as painless forms of taxation. In the United States, a multistate lottery system called Powerball was created in 1994 and has raised more than $10 billion.

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to choosing lottery numbers, some people do try to use statistics and probability to determine which numbers are less likely to be drawn. Other players select their numbers based on a date, such as their birthday or the anniversary of their first date with someone special. Regardless of which method you choose, it is important to remember that only authorized lottery retailers sell tickets, and buying lottery tickets from outside of your country may be illegal.

Throughout the years, people have used lottery profits to fund everything from the construction of the British Museum to building and repairing bridges. During the American Revolution, Congress attempted to organize a large lottery as an alternative to direct taxation and to help finance a war that was draining the nation’s bank accounts. Privately organized lotteries were also common, and many of the early colleges in America (Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College, Union and Brown) financed themselves by holding them.

By the fourteen-hundreds, public lotteries were common in the Low Countries, where they were used to build town fortifications and provide charity for the poor. The practice made its way to England and, eventually, to the American colonies. Despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling, it was an established part of colonial life and helped finance the European settlement of America.

Cohen argues that the rise of modern state-sponsored lotteries began in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of all the riches to be made in the gambling industry collided with a crisis in state funding. The old arrangement, which allowed states to expand their array of public services without raising taxes on middle-class and working-class citizens, was coming apart at the seams.

By the seventies and eighties, state budgets had grown so large that a new reality set in: income inequality increased, job security and pensions eroded, health-care costs rose, and the national promise that children would be better off than their parents ceased to be true for all but the very rich. At that point, the lottery became a vehicle to address the new crisis, and it was promoted as a painless alternative to higher taxes. It worked. Lottery revenues have now surpassed state sales tax and income taxes. And, in some cases, even the federal income tax. But the lottery has also spawned a new obsession with unimaginable wealth, along with the creeping sense that you can’t lose, because, well, somebody must win.